Francois Trinh-Duc tops the first-five rankings in Europe at the moment. He is a great ball carrier who is now also finding space with the boot. The French ten has added the crossfield kick-pass to his game in recent months and it makes him very difficult to defend against.
When Mick Byrne first came to the All Blacks from the AFL, he talked a lot about the defensive backfield and using the kick to shape the opposition defence. We worked a lot with Dan Carter and the rest of the New Zealand midfield on developing that part of the game and now Trinh-Duc is doing it for France.
The week before the opening round of the Six Nations, Montpellier scored twice off his kicks. Trinh-Duc set up another try against Italy with a chip over the defence. He is becoming a complete footballer.
Rhys Priestland would be my second choice. He didn’t have his best game against Ireland, but he attacks the line and there are not too many first-fives around who could have set up that first half try. He has a great attitude and he is strong. Having seen him play full back for the Scarlets, I would just like to see him add a metre of pace. He can get more explosive yet and then the Welsh backs would be a nightmare to contain.
Jonathan Sexton is a good footballer and I have no idea why he did not run against Wales. He made it easy for them to defend out wide and if Sexton was playing to orders, then I am a little baffled. He is playing winning rugby at provincial level, he is good under pressure, he is brave and has the running potential. I would like to see him hit the line more.
What to make of the rest? Dan Parks is like a slightly inferior Ronan O’Gara. They both have a range of kicks which they use to manipulate the defence. They are not great runners or great defenders, and you know exactly what you will get against them, but it is not always easy when O’Gara starts to push your defence around the field.
Parks had some of the same ability and was at his best a couple of seasons ago. Now he has retired and been replaced by Greig Laidlaw, in the continued absence of Ruaridh Jackson. Laidlaw has played a lot at 9 like his uncle Roy. With Morgan Parra playing first-five during the World Cup it seems to be a vogue at the moment, but Laidlaw showed an eye for space with that disallowed ‘try’ against England.
Scotland tried to play against England and at half-time went to an offloading game. They wanted to shift the point of contact against a very narrow defence. But then ‘narrow’ defined England. They played like a Premiership side trying to avoid relegation.
They were scared and so they reverted to mistake-free football. They won’t beat the better Six Nations teams playing like that. Charlie Hodgson is a bit of an enigma. He is highly talented (except as a defender) with a really good skill set, but he is slowing down and does not run like he used to. In fact he didn’t run at all against Scotland. England just shipped it to the next receiver and went bash.
Toby Flood will surely come back against Wales although at some stage I would like to see Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt play together. That would give England the sort of physical threat in the middle that makes Wales hard to knock back.
But first England has to win in Rome and it will be a battle. Kris Burton was up there with Rhys Priestland as the most running fly-half in the first round (five apiece, Trinh-Duc and Parks ran it once and Hodgson and Sexton did not bother). Burton is more of a threat than Italy’s other recent tens and gives them an extra dimension. I think England will improve and victory over Scotland will open up their game, but they will have to grind.